The sooner Xi and Trump meet, the better
One meeting won’t solve everything but it might put a brake on declining relations
Parties to international disputes rely on the diplomatic skills and insights of their envoys in one another’s capitals to avoid any unfortunate and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of the opposite side’s position. In what is now increasingly labelled a second cold war, conflicting signals from the Donald Trump administration in its trade battle with Beijing have complicated the diplomatic mission of China’s top man in Washington, ambassador Cui Tiankai. He has raised his frustration over who speaks for Trump in a rare appearance on United States network television to make China’s stance abundantly clear. If that sounds like it is time for another face-to-face encounter between President Xi Jinping and Trump to at least clear the air a little, one is “probable” by late next month at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, according to White House economic director Larry Kudlow.
It cannot happen soon enough given that, by all accounts, the two leaders seem to get on better than some of their advisers. After all, Cui did not go on television just to vent frustration. His appearance followed a landmark speech by US Vice-President Mike Pence that was seen to frame the US-China dispute in ideological terms and take it to another level. After months of tit-for-tat trade tariffs, Pence accused Beijing of adopting “a whole-of-government approach” to sway American public opinion, such as a network of spies including Chinese students, coercive commercial measures, attempts to sow dissatisfaction with Washington at local level and a propaganda campaign. His comments were unquestionably some of the most provocative by a high-ranking US official in recent memory.
Cui told his American audience China had no choice but to defend its own interests if a trade war were launched against it and that claims of orchestrated interference in American domestic affairs were groundless. Rather, he cited a recent dangerously close encounter between US and Chinese warships after the former sailed close to a disputed island in the South China Sea as an example of interference in Beijing’s internal affairs, adding that Washington would not be pleased if Chinese warships sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. At this juncture, amid heightened perils of an accidental incident or a misunderstanding, a Xi-Trump summit is in both countries’ interests. It’s telling for Cui to mention the confusion over decision-making at the White House, not to mention the military tension. In a perfect world, all it would take to wind down the tension is for Xi and Trump to have a free and frank exchange of views. In the real world, the two sides have yet to confirm the summit. We can only trust they do. One meeting won’t solve everything but it might put a brake on declining relations.